When in less than a week’s time France and Romania will kick off the 2016 European Championship at Stade de France in Paris, it will be the beginning of a new emotional roller coaster for millions of Europeans who will eat, drink and breathe football for four weeks. Football grouches will doubtlessly have a hard time to escape discussions about the tournament’s title favourites, the likely line-up for the next match, the current state of the EURO betting competitions at work, the condition of Cristiano Ronaldo’s six-pack, Zlatan Ibrahimović’s recent tweets or the latest pics in the Panini collection.
Still, it is difficult to imagine that Europeans will be able to fully enjoy this distraction from the daily crisis mode the EU and its Member States have been in over the past six years. Too tricky and challenging are the upcoming two months on the political agenda before the political summer break than it would allow enough breathing space for both policy makers and citizens alike to simply enjoy ‘the beautiful game’.
First, the decision of the British citizens on 23 June whether their country will have a future inside or outside the EU will have a significant impact on the way the EU will look like in the future – no matter the outcome of the referendum. Second, only three days later, on 26 June, it is the Spanish citizen’s choice between setting a huge exclamation mark behind their protest vote or reconnecting with what has been left of the former Spanish popular parties could lead to even more discord between Member States. Finally, the refugee crisis in the EU will not end unless EU Member States will agree to a lasting solution based on European solidarity – despite the disputable EU-Turkey deal.
Since the very first European Championship in 1960, every four years the tournament has been a stock taking exercise on the continent’s changing (geo-) political status quo and of the respective European ‘Zeitgeist’ . Think of the first final in 1960 between Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union – a game between two countries which do not exist anymore and which stand for a continent that remained divided for three more decades. In the 1970s, the Netherlands under their Captain Johan Cruijff revolutionised the game, breaking antiquated structures and tactics. The Dutch play reflected the spirit of a time in which dramatic political, societal and cultural change unfolded. At the European Championship in Sweden in 1992, political developments were crucial for one of the tournament’s most striking underdog victories in history: Due to the outbreak of the civil war, Yugoslavia was disqualified shortly before the start of the competition and Denmark took part instead. The Danish national team seized its opportunity beating the reigning European champion The Netherlands in the semi-final, and the reigning world champion Germany in the final. For Germany, the 1992 European Championship was the first major tournament that saw a unified team with players from East and West Germany competing.
In a (geo)political sense EURO 2016 is not different from earlier editions. This year’s European Championship reflects the dramatic changes Europe underwent since the tournament took place in Poland and Ukraine four years ago. Spain’s road to their second consecutive Championship led them twice to the Donbass Stadium in Donetsk; less than two years later, the region turned into a theatre of war seeing Ukrainian armed forces clashing with pro-Russian separatists for control of the town and region. While both Ukraine and Russia will participate in this year’s tournament, the annexation of Crimea by Russia seems irreversible, most of Eastern Ukraine has turned into a frozen conflict area and the EU and Russia have sanctioned each other. Football is not spared from these turbulences involving both countries: The Ukrainian team did not select players currently signed by a Russian club which led to heated debates about alleged politically motivated nominations. Both teams might meet in the round of 16, which could provoke a politically explosive situation and lead to the instrumentalisation of the game for political propaganda.
Most visibly for all football fans who will go to France for the European Championship will be the aspect of security: France is still traumatised by the terror attacks in January and November 2015 which also saw three suicide bombers targeting the friendly match between France and Germany at the Stade de France in Paris – the arena which will host the opening game and the final of the tournament. Authorities are worried that the European Championship might be a potential target for terrorists. As a consequence, the Assemblée nationale approved to extend the state of emergency imposed after the Paris attacks with ministers arguing it will provide greater security during the European Championship. In any case, supporters from all over Europe will feel slightly queasy when chanting their songs in the French streets, while being closely watched by security forces and guarded by armed soldiers. Facing tight security restrictions on fan festivals, in and outside the football stadiums and on airports, train stations and metro stops their patience will be tested to the limit. This also is Europe in the year 2016: a continent in fear of the next terrorist attack.
Probably contemporary Europe’s most worrying feature which is reflected in this year’s European Championship is the return of identity politics and the contestation of the concept of a multicultural Europe by far-right parties everywhere. Football as a team sport has always had a tremendous integrative power. When the glorious Équipe Tricolore, the French national team, won the World Cup in their own country in 1998, players like Zinedine Zidane, Patrick Vieira, Lilian Thuram or Christian Karembeu impersonated the ethnic diversity of the country. Their success was hailed as an example of the modern multicultural French ideal and the success of the ‘French model’ of social integration. However, the national celebration of diversity was short-lived. Four years after the victory, the far-right Front National presidential candidate finished second in national elections and in 2005, riots broke out across the country as French youngsters of immigrant origin responded to police brutality and inequality with violence. Last year’s terrorist attacks have once again sparked a dangerous integration debate in France which risks making a simplistic connection between the feeling of insecurity and issues of ethnicity, religion and inequality within the country.
In Germany, the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) has tried to exploit the growing discontent among the population with Chancellor Merkel’s refugee policies and the fears concerning the immense integration challenge that come with the large numbers of refugees arriving in Germany. One party leader of the AfD criticised the diverse ethnic backgrounds of the German players and argued that the German national team ‘is no longer German’. Germans, he claimed, would not like to have Jerôme Boateng, who was born in Berlin to a Ghanaian father and a German mother and who is one of the co-captains of the German national team, as a neighbour . At the same time, other AfD politicians criticised German midfielder Mesut Özil, a third-generation Turkish-German, for posting a photograph of himself during a pilgrimage to Mecca on Facebook arguing it would send an ‘anti-patriotic signal’. These examples highlight, how toxic and explosive the debate about integration and migration in light of the refugee crisis has become for Europe and how easily football – as a mirror of society – can be hijacked by right-wing demagogues who are all too keen to play the patriotic card for their political purposes.
Even in times of serious division, Europe has always managed to (re)connect through football. The continent’s favourite pastime succeeds in bringing together people from all nationalities and diverse backgrounds. Despite our diverse cultural, ethnic, social, religious and political background, the game reminds us of our shared values that are contested and undermined these days by populists all over Europe – a glimmer of hope in these troubled times.
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 see Alberto Nardelli, The Story of Postwar Europe, Told Through The European Championships, Buzzfeed, https://www.buzzfeed.com/albertonardelli/the-story-of-postwar-europe-through-the-euros?utm_term=.vn67QW6kp#.sg2V3ayPO
 see Matthew Karnitschnig, Identity politics keep feeding Europe‘s far-right, Politico, http://www.politico.eu/article/identity-politics-keeps-feeding-europes-far-right-jerome-boateng-immigration-refugees-afd-austria-norbert-hofer-populism/